China’s Hold on Hollywood

By Anna Hanuska

In a free world of liberty and justice, one would expect the entertainment industry to reflect the best interests of the moneymaking capitalists: the United States of America. However, that is not the case. Instead, according to a study by PEN America, a free speech organization, Hollywood caters to China, an authoritarian, communist nation with severe censorship laws.

Despite the emphasis on storytelling, film studios are simply businesses. They claim to lack political interference and make movies critical of America, such as The Report, yet still comply with China’s censorship laws in order to prevent issues with overseas releases. Despite being a heavily controlled state, China is still one of the main markets for American movies, earning $2.6bn for American film studios in 2019. Additionally, most film studios are multinational corporations, with merchandise sales and theme parks also depending on the Chinese market, so they can’t risk backlash from the authoritarian power. According to PEN America, “Beijing operates the world’s largest, most comprehensive, and most sophisticated system of state censorship […] often [to] explicitly protect and benefit the interests of the Party and the country’s political leadership.” However, these censorship laws do not only affect what graces the eyes of Chinese theatergoers.

It’s not a secret that facts are different in China. From borders on maps to origins of diseases, the Chinese propaganda machine defines citizens’ view of the world. For years, films have been specifically altered for their Chinese releases. Notable mentions include the removal of scenes showing a Chinese henchmen’s death in Mission: Impossible III, a same-sex kiss in Star Trek Beyond, and references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality in Bohemian Rhapsody. Beijing regularly censors scenes that shed Chinese people in a poor light (like getting killed in an action movie) or discourage traditional families (like the scenes with same-sex relationships). These specific alterations are only in the version shown to Chinese audiences, but the scope continues beyond that.

Several recent releases have included changes to the global version of the movie to make it easier to pass Beijing officials. In a leaked email about the removal of a scene destroying the Great Wall from the final version of Pixels, a Sony executive states, “if we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out for this when bloggers invariably compare the versions and realize we changed the China setting just to pacify that market.” Essentially, Hollywood has shifted to altering international releases to better hide their self-censorship. 

Most worryingly, recent movies even appeal to China’s view on politics. In Doctor Strange, the role of the Ancient One is played by a white actress, despite the comic character being Tibetan. Tibet is a controversial area, due to China insisting on control of the region despite local claims to self-determination (similar to Taiwan or Hong Kong… China seems to think it rules a lot of places that it does not). The writer of the film, C. Robert Cargill, admits that the change was due to the “risk [of] the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’” Additionally, changes were made to Top Gun: Maverick, as many fans noticed in the trailer. In the 1986 original Top Gun, Maverick’s jacket contains many patches relating to his military service, including flags of Japan and Taiwan. However, China dislikes Japan and denies the existence of Taiwan, so the sequel has a jacket with the flags notably missing, random shapes in their place. For a movie meant to showcase pure American awesomeness, sequeling what was essentially a US Navy propaganda film, Top Gun: Maverick still manages to take the side of the communists.

An economic power with strict censorship, China controls the content seen by not only their own people, but also the rest of the world.